Thursday, November 06, 2014

Game books as a gateway into gaming

Although I technically played D&D (once) before, or at least about the same time as I stumbled across the concept of the interactive book, I think it's fair to say that the interactive book had a much stronger impact on me and helped grease the skids so that I would later be attracted to the notion of gaming in the first place.  In the late 70s and throughout much of the 80s, there were a whole host of these kinds of books, most of them spawned by success of the very first series, Choose Your Own Adventure.  I discovered them in an English class in probably 3rd grade or so?  Possibly 2nd?  I ended up buying about three dozen of them over the years, many of which I still have (although not all.)  I believe the first one I read was actually the first one period: Cave of Time, although it later turned out that a book I read later, Sugarcane Island in the Which Way Books series was actually the true first book in the series, published in a small imprint.  The ones I knew were the ones published by Bantam and widely available almost everywhere after they had been in print in limited form for some time.  One of my favorites was the first Which Way book, The Castle of No Return, which was a fair bit darker than most of the actual CYOA's, and which featured a haunted house theme, basically--but which might also instead have turned into a spy or thriller type theme, depending on what choices you made.

Of course, I also liked a lot of the actual, original CYOA series; Third Planet from Altair, The Cave of Time, The Race Forever, By Balloon to the Sahara, Space Patrol, Escape, and others still remain fixed in my memory as fond remembrances of my childhood.  I actually tried to look some of them up at the library, and I found that while back in print again, they have all new art and modified text.  Reading The Race Forever without the old Paul Grainger art and being able to pick my Toyota Jeep was just plain wrong.  It didn't take.  Sadly, that's not one that I managed to keep.  One of these days, I'll probably seek out a used copy.

It didn't take long before people with ties to the gaming industry decided to make use of the concept.  There were actually official D&D CYOA books, called Endless Quest, although I don't remember actually liking them much.  Rather, I liked the ones that actually had a few character sheets, some rules, and expected you to roll dice and enact combats by yourself against monsters.  One thing that these did, also, was greatly increase the number of sections by not limiting themselves to one section per page.  The first I discovered of these were the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, which are still probably the best and most iconic.  Luckily, however, I didn't discover the first in the series first, because Warlock of Firetop Mountain, while considered an iconic classic by some, was really frustrating and frankly kind of ugly.  Instead, I ended up with Forest of Doom and City of Thieves first (although I later bought maybe half a dozen others.)  As you can imagine if you've read my old posts on my setting, the latter was right up my alley especially.  Although I didn't retain either of my copies of those over the years, I have since bought a used copy of City of Thieves again.  What great artwork that book had!  The cover art, on the other hand, was a bit sketchy.  On the other hand, the cover art for The Forest of Doom caught my eye immediately.  It's not a bad book, but it wasn't as good as some of the others that I read.  City of Thieves is still a good read, but the "system" in the books is laughably inadequate.  You're better off ignoring it completely and just reading through.

In the other hand, the Lone Wolf books had a decent system, and that was part of the fun.  You could actually equip your character, and have a few noticeable differences in how the book unfolded depending on how you did so.  The Lone Wolf books also had a thread, or "meta story" that unfolded across the titles, and its own setting, which was enumerated in a separate book (which I own.)  I no longer have any of the old Lone Wolf books (other than the setting book), but hey, guess what?  You can read them for free online, thanks to the generosity of the creator and copyright holder!  Check it out!  I had, at one point, more than half a dozen Lone Wolf books, but only the setting book, or The Magnamund Companion still remains in my possession.  I especially recall really enjoying this bit of cover art here, although altogether the series was quite good.

Lastly, the final (and my favorite) series was Tolkien Quest, which only had a few entries before being renamed Middle Earth Quest (this shouldn't be terribly surprising given my decades long love affair with the work of Tolkien.)  This was then later cancelled before the majority of the entries once listed were actually published.  It was produced by I.C.E., the publishers (and developers) of Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP), a reasonably popular game of the 80s that was semi-compatible with their generic roleplaying system, Rolemaster.

Although I've never actually played any MERP, I do have a copy of one of the editions of it that I bought years ago and can't bring myself to throw away (even though I literally haven't pulled it out to look at it in years, and I've become somewhat disenchanted with the execution over time.)  The Tolkien Quest books actually allowed for you to play using MERP characters, although it also came with its own system.  The Tolkien Quest system was somewhat lightweight compared to MERP (which was somewhat lightweight compared to its parent system Rolemaster; but let's face it, the entire I.C.E. output was notorious for its compexity) but it was still significantly more complicated than anything that another gamebook provided.  Rather, I think where Tolkien Quest really shined was its ability to emulate a hex crawl of sorts.

There was a map on glossy cardstock included with the book that had numbered hexes on it.  The text of the book itself was broken up into two main sections (not counting the rules; I guess I should make that three sections.)  One of them was very typical for gamebooks, and had numbered sections that you read, you'd make selections and choices and then be instructed to go to another section based on your choices and selections.  But another vast section was keyed to the map.  To actually progress through the book, you would start out in hex, and once you did everything you could in that hex, and read all of the sections that you might have had to read for that hex, you simply moved to a new hex--any new hex that was adjacent to the one you just left.

The first (and in my brief experience, the best) of these books was Night of the Nazgûl, which had your character starting off in Bree shortly prior to Frodo's exit from Hobbiton.  You were tasked by Gandalf (if I recall) with making your way to Hobbiton to warn Frodo to leave at once.  The map gave you a fairly straight road to cross, but if you went to the bridge that crossed the Brandywine, you'd eventually come across a Black Rider and be in trouble, which would encourage you to explore the cross country hexes a bit.  This allows you to, for example, explore the Barrow-downs or the Old Forest.  Or perhaps visit some parts of the Shire or Bree-land that are mentioned briefly but not really seen in the text of The Lord of the Rings such as Tuckburough, Scary, Stock, Frogmorton, Archet, etc.  This hex crawl exploration was truly brilliant, I thought, but it didn't work quite as well for areas that were smaller (such as the other of the two books in the series that I originally bought, which took place on Weathertop, and also had "dungeons" below the fallen tower.  Of course.  :/)  It also didn't work quite as well on the third book that I picked up later, which took place in Mirkwood, featured a visit with Radagast, and had a rather bland overland map without much in the way of interesting or useful features to explore, really.

Just for the heckuvit, and because it wasn't hard to find them online, here's a link to the west and east sides of the Night of the Nazgûl map, just so you can see what it looks like.

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